Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama, Shinseki stories on VA medical care don't add up

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
  • David Gergen: President Obama and Eric Shinseki have done much for veterans
  • But he says their stories about the delays for medical care don't add up
  • A top VA official wrote about the coverup of long waiting lists four years ago
  • Gergen: No more excuses, it's time to investigate and fix this problem

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter at @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The reputations of one of the Army's finest generals and of a once-admired institution may get tarnished, but nothing should now get in the way of urgent investigations, firings and immediate fixes in health care for veterans.

And for good measure, maybe heads should roll at the White House, too, because what we have been told so far about a burgeoning scandal over veterans' care doesn't add up.

The story line out of the administration is that the head of Veterans Affairs, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, and President Obama are both "mad as hell" about alleged misdeeds and have sprung into action to put things aright. We are led to believe that alarm bells went off in both organizations as soon as allegations surfaced.

David Gergen
David Gergen

One would so like to believe that were the case. Shinseki has a sterling record as a soldier. He was twice wounded in Vietnam -- the second time grievously, losing most of one foot. A lesser man would have been forced out of the service but through sheer courage (he used to run punishing laps around a track to show he was still able), he convinced the Army to let him stay and he rose to four stars. More recently, Shinseki was the man who had the guts to tell the truth before we went into Iraq -- insisting he needed a much bigger force -- and was essentially cashiered. I have long been an unabashed admirer.

Obama has also taken up the cause of veterans since he first ran for the U.S. Senate. So has the first lady. And under this president, much good has been accomplished for veterans in terms of health care, reducing homelessness, jobs, and importantly, a nation's respect.

But as admirable as Shinseki's and Obama's records have been on behalf of veterans, the story line the administration has been peddling about the VA's care of veterans simply doesn't fit the facts. The underlying problem at the heart of this scandal -- excessive, long waits for medical care for veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan -- has persisted for years.

Running for the White House, candidate Obama promised action. Soon after he took over the VA, Shinseki did take action, ordering that henceforth veterans would not have to wait more than 14 days for a medical appointment.

How is Obama handling the VA scandal?
Rep. Miller on holding the VA accountable

But the bureaucracy at the VA, second only to the Pentagon in size, is notoriously sluggish. In 2010 -- four years ago! -- the deputy undersecretary of the VA wrote a nine-page memo saying that in order to cover up their continued delays, various parts of the VA system were engaged in "gaming strategies" -- in effect, lying.

The General Accounting Office and VA inspector generals wrote reports saying the practice was widespread. One would have thought that would have set off alarm bells at both the VA and the White House. Where was the anger then? There were some internal investigations, but they never went anywhere and there was little apparent sense of urgency.

Six months ago, CNN turned loose its own investigative reporters and aired stories about excessive waits in several facilities across the country. Again, the VA and the White House had little to say.

Then a month ago, CNN (along with the Arizona Republic) broke the story from the Phoenix VA that managers there have allegedly been cooking their books to provide false assurances. Veterans awaiting care were dying. The administration seemed to brush the story aside and Shinseki refused repeated requests from CNN for an interview.

Recent days have been a political nightmare for the VA. Hauled before Congress to testify, Shinseki testified that evidence suggested only "isolated incidents" in the system. That same day CNN was reporting that there were allegations of misdeeds in at least six centers across the country. The next day the VA itself said there were 10 centers under investigation. By this week, the official number had mushroomed to 26. And weeks after the fact, the VA has rescinded a bonus it gave earlier this year to the boss of that Phoenix operation.

In the weeks ahead, the administration now says, investigators will come up with reports and maybe some folks will be forced out. We will see. In the meantime, veterans are still waiting to hear of decisive action to end their long delays in care.

When troubles arise in which Americans are needlessly dying, citizens like to think of the president as the fireman-in-chief. He is there in the White House, his team ever vigilant, and at the first sign of danger, he leads his team into action. At his side is the Cabinet officer with responsibility. Sadly, that is not what happened here.

For most Americans, the story of VA officials allegedly falsifying records of veterans' care is disgusting. Those old enough to remember will be reminded how the government falsified counts of body bags in Vietnam. But the real issue is whether as a country, we are keeping faith with our veterans -- whether, as Abraham Lincoln urged in his second inaugural, we are binding the wounds of those who fought. Surely, we owe them prompt and professional care -- no more excuses, no more delays, no more b.s.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
Veterans Affairs
updated 6:43 PM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
The chairman of the House VA Committee is accusing the VA of "what appears to be an attempt to mislead Congress and the public" by manipulating the number of veterans who died as a result of delays in care.
updated 11:28 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Roughly half the schedulers at multiple VA hospitals said they received instructions from supervisors to falsify data and hide the true time it took patients to be seen by a doctor.
updated 3:45 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
The Senate unanimously confirmed Robert McDonald, a former corporate CEO and an ex-Army officer, as the next Veterans Affairs secretary.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Sgt. Terry Mitchell withstood fire deep in the mountains of Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange. He survived that grisly war, but his life was cut short by delays in care.
updated 11:20 PM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
The FBI says it has opened a criminal investigation of the Veterans Affairs Department.
updated 7:09 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
An internal VA audit said tens of thousands of veterans wait at least 90 days for medical care, while even more never got an immediate appointment they requested.
updated 6:04 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
It began with secret texts to untraceable phones. Meetings took place in seedy bars, dark alleys, gas stations.
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Sat May 31, 2014
In the end, even Eric Shinseki knew he had to go, President Obama said in announcing the resignation of his only VA secretary over a growing scandal.
A report was released on an audit of VA facilities in the wake of news that the VA medical system is in trouble.
updated 10:04 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a comprehensive review of the military health care system.
updated 9:04 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
Pedro Valdez, a Vietnam veteran, wanted help. And he knew where to get it -- through the Phoenix VA -- or so he thought.
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
Scandal, controversy and veterans care in the United States have gone hand-in-hand for virtually as long as there's been a republic.
updated 6:21 AM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
The House has passed a bill making it easier for the VA to fire managers. CNN's Michelle Kosinski reports.
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
When the American Legion calls for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gen. Eric Shinseki to resign, you know something is profoundly wrong.
updated 8:42 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
"The Phoenix VA Health Care System is committed to delivering the highest quality care to Veterans."
updated 8:33 AM EST, Wed November 20, 2013
Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has found.